You can trace the roots back to the end of the 2008 season, when Felipe Massa crossed the finish line at his home race in Brazil to claim the World Drivers’ Championship only to have it snatched away by Lewis Hamilton overtaking a struggling Timo Glock just a few corners behind. A momentum-carrying campaign was off the cards when Brawn GP arrived in 2009: no one could have predicted that team’s dominance and Massa never stood a chance. Struggling with front end grip, and without a double diffuser, Ferrari spent the first half of the season playing catch-up. Any hope of a second-half fight back was put to a brutal halt during qualifying the Hungarian GP when a damper unit from a car Felipe was following made a bid for freedom. The 1kg lump of metal bounced down the track and a few seconds later met up with Felipe Massa’s head which, at the time, was travelling at something like 170mph. The injury was horrific (there are pictures, if you must see the damage) and the fact that he survived, never mind was able to race again, feels like nothing short of a miracle. It put him out for the rest of the season.
But it was 2010 was when his problems really started and we began to get a glimpse into the unique manner in which top level motor sport can crush a man’s soul.
To be at the top of any sport, you have to believe that you’re the best. But if you’re a footballer, there’s no hiding from your talent: if you’re not as good as your dad thinks you are you’ll quickly be shown up on the pitch and will find yourself playing for Aldershot before you’ve even had a chance to think about whether your Bentley Continental will have an ostrich or crocodile-skin interior. Any striker can be compared to Messi because, fundamentally, all other things are equal. Motor sport isn’t like that. Because of the machinery factor, the only person you can really be compared against is your team mate, so get in a fast car with a crap team mate and you’re golden, regardless of skill.
Massa has, on the face of it, done pretty well in this all-important war, with three of his five pre-2010 team mates being world champions. First he saw off Jacques Villeneuve in the Sauber before a move to Ferrari put him up against Michael Schumacher, where he wasn’t embarrassed by one of the greatest driver/team combos in the history of the sport. Even though Schumacher’s replacement, Kimi ‘I was having a shit’ Raikkonen beat Massa to the 2007 WDC, the pair were pretty evenly matched.
So, you’d have to say that Massa is a hugely talented chap, capable of taking on and, on occasion beating, some of the best drivers of the era. He must have thought he was destined for greatness: “In F1 the only person you can be compared against is your team mate. I’ve done well against three world champions. I’m set.”
But, his brain has probably refused to process that all three were at the end of their careers when Massa took them on. Villeneuve took his title before Massa was even old enough to have a driving license and, other than salary negotiations, had done nothing note-worthy in the near-decade between his 1997 title and joining Massa in the Sauber in 2005. Schumacher was a seven-times world champion and there was no expectation that Massa would challenge him, so there was little pressure on the still-developing Brazilian and he did pretty well. However, Schumi was in the twilight of his career in 2006 and in no way the same cut throat bastard that would put his car anywhere he liked and let the other person decide whether or not there was going to be an accident. Kimi, while undoubtedly fast, lacked motivation. His post-WDC performances were regularly phoned-in and his lack of commitment was confirmed in spectacular fashion when, after the 2009 Malaysian GP was suspended due to heavy rain, Kimi was filmed in shorts and t-shirt eating an ice cream. Every other driver was still in their car waiting for the race to restart.
So, let’s try to get inside Massa’s head pre-2010. You’ve not had the easiest route through F1, surviving two years on the side lines. You’ve given an apparently great account of yourself against three world champs and you’ve convinced yourself that you put the mental kybosh on Kimi Raikkonen. You’ve run F1’s new golden boy Lewis Hamilton to the line for the 2008 title. You’re well in at Ferrari. You’re Michael Schumacher’s protégé. A WDC is simply a matter of when, not if.
Massa must have been feeling pretty good about going up against new team mate Fernando Alonso in 2010, so the reality of the situation must have been a bit of a shock. Say what you like about him as a man, but Alonso is one of the finest drivers F1 has ever seen and is absolutely at the top of his game. He is the opposite of every team mate Massa has had up to this point in his career: fast, consistent, young enough to be absolutely committed, but with plenty of experience and, most importantly, utterly ruthless. He has dominated Felipe and taken ownership of the team that will take him to several more drivers’ titles. The ‘coded’ move over for your team mate message “Felipe, Fernando is faster than you” from his engineer in Germany was the real turning point and a crushingly blunt confirmation of his status within the team.
It smacks of deflection, of a man struggling to understand why he can’t compete with his team mate, never mind the other top team drivers who are routinely running rings around him.
Even though it wasn’t for anyone else, this must have been a shock for Felipe: seeing a team he had been at for five years being wrenched away by the new boy. The circumstances that preceded the 2010 season have clearly played a part in the nature of this season’s breakdown that appears to be manifesting itself as a beef with Lewis Hamilton that very nearly came to a head (butt) in Singapore. They’ve had a couple of coming-togethers this season, two in Monaco in the one in Singapore, but the way Massa has been talking about Hamilton, you could be forgiven for thinking he is personally responsible for each and every one of the Brazilian’s impressively mediocre 2011 performances. It smacks of deflection, of a man struggling to understand why he can’t compete with his team mate, never mind the other top team drivers who are routinely running rings around him. His name is consistently at the top of the ‘drivers most likely to lose their seats’ list and, in a Formula One World Championship absolutely jam-packed with talent, both contemporary (Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Button, Rosberg), up-and-coming (Di Resta, Perez, Kobayashi) and on the subs’ bench (Kubica) there just isn’t room in a top team for Massa, especially in his current ‘form’. There’s no doubt that the blow to the head that he took in Hungary 2009 has affected him, as a massive accident so often can for those who participate in dangerous sports, and struggling to re-find the pre-crash form while resolutely failing to compete against the only really challenging team mate he has ever had must be really tough.
But here’s the unfortunate truth: any top level sport is no place for charity and, thanks to its bizarre combination of being a team as well as an individual sport; Formula One is a uniquely challenging environment to struggle with a lack of form. There is no place to hide on a Formula One track, you can’t ‘pull a hamstring’ and have a sub come on to bail you out for a half, you can’t be ‘rested’; you have to perform. All the time. Felipe Massa has been completely shown up by Alonso and while getting smashed in the face by a massive chunk of aluminium probably hasn’t helped, nearly ten years of fortunate timing with team mates has given him a belief in his talents that might have been a little, shall we say, over-inflated. That has almost certainly made his current performance situation much harder to accept.
I’m reminded of a line from Days of Thunder: “I’m not going faster, everyone else is going slower.” Turn that on its head and I think you have a fairly accurate summation of the not-so-young-anymore Brazilian’s problem.
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